Science and Art “Married” in Fun-Filled Ceremony

As any university student can tell you, a College of Arts and Sciences is a basic foundation for most institutions of higher learning.  But beyond that, it seems the arts and the sciences go their separate  ways in our modern world. How lucky we are then, to have in our midst a Woodlands visionary by the name of Doug Kilgore.

Mr. Kilgore has, for some time now, been actively pursuing the marriage of the arts and sciences through the establishment of The Woodlands Science and Art Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing science and the arts to the Woodlands area. Last week, in the beautiful Montgomery College Theater, his organization presented Professor Margrave’s Chemistry Magic Show, the third in its series of science lectures. The near-capacity crowd included a wide age range of eager children and interested adults. Kilgore opened the proceedings with the exciting news that he expects his center to have its own building in about a year. It would accommodate area students and teachers for daytime science exhibits and programs, while doubling as a theater  at night and on weekends.

The fascinating evening, for young and old, was hosted by Dr. John Margrave, Chief Scientist at the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) and Professor of Chemistry at Rice University. For many years Margrave has used the experiments in his magic show to reveal to his audiences the chemical properties and processes that govern our lives and shape our world.  Graduate students, Amit A. Patel of the Texas Academy of Math and Science (UNT), and Ivana W. Chiang of Rice University ably assisted him. Describing the theme of the show as “Meaningful Manipulations of Millions of Madly Moving Molecules,” Margrave went on to explain that funds made available through the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo help to support the work of his student assistants.

The professor began with a discussion of the environmental inter-relationship between carbon dioxide and oxygen in the air we breathe. After reviewing, (with help from many budding young scientists in the audience) the ways in which people use oxygen and give off carbon dioxide while plants do the opposite, Margrave surprised the audience. He gave us the news that our very breathing is part of the world’s pollution problem as we now have 3 times as many people on earth as in the 1800’s. So much for blaming all our pollution on factory and automobile emissions!

Moving to a discussion of “hot things,” the professor made sure everyone was awake with a carefully controlled methane gas explosion. After demonstrating that a steel nail would not burn, he surprised us again by burning steel wool (which is flammable due to its greater exposed surface area.)

It was mentioned that there are now 118 known chemical elements and that 70-80 of these can be found in the sea. Explaining that Dow Chemical Co. has processes for recovering sea elements like magnesium, Margrave then dazzled his audience when his assistants ignited the magnesium causing a brilliant white flare-up. He pointed out that such fires are not put out with water, but must be smothered. The professor reminded us that kitchen fires are similar, and we should put the lid on a burning frying pan or close the door for an oven fire.

Ammonium dichromate, a component of many fireworks, was demonstrated for its ability to create a dramatic, volcanic-like fire and crater. Several balloons (one inflated with hydrogen, one with oxygen, and one with a mixture of the two gases) were ignited to dramatic effect.

In a demonstration of “things that are cold” the audience learned that “dry ice” (frozen carbon dioxide) is  -80 degrees centigrade or –150 degrees Fahrenheit and is commonly used to create smoke or fog in films and theatrical productions. Liquid Nitrogen fascinated one and all as it was dramatically splashed on the stage floor and used to quick-freeze roses and lettuce leaves which could then be easily crushed into a fine powder. The professor drew chuckles with the suggestion that this would be a good way to prepare tossed salads. Mentioning liquid nitrogen’s usefulness in invitro fertilization, he also described documented cases of gold fish frozen this way and yet able to swim away when defrosted! A more practical application, he went on, was the chemical’s ability to remove warts through freezing.

There followed several colorful and eye-catching tests for acids and bases. With his spectacles, gray hair and crisp white lab coat, the professor’s gentle and amusing manner with children made me wonder if he wouldn’t be a perfect candidate as host of a televised science series for children. Are you listening, PBS?

Also of considerable interest was the topic of lasers. In addition to learning they are the basis for such everyday items as the scanners in grocery stores and libraries, it was fascinating to learn that Albert Einstein’s work had established laser feasibility as early as 1915.

With Margrave’s assistants adding iodine and zinc to ammonium nitrate, a mystical iodine cloud was produced. It was pointed out that ammonium nitrate, in addition to its use in fertilizers, is a dangerous explosive and caused the Texas City ship explosion in 1947, which killed several hundred people.

The audience laughed along during a demonstration of the process for creating nylon. A seemingly endless strand continued to emerge while the professor explained that nylon’s 1930 discovery found no practical application until World War II when Japan cut off our supply of silk for parachutes and nylon was found to be a suitable substitute.

During the question and answer period that followed, area youngsters asked a variety of thought- provoking questions that should make CISD science educators proud of their impact. Margrave then suggested that some children might come to the stage to freeze a rose. Wondering aloud about the most orderly way for the youngsters to come on stage, his question was quickly answered as dozens of kids ran forward and scaled the stage wall. When last seen, Professor Margrave looked like he had more children than roses. I bet some had to settle for a frozen lettuce leaf, but certainly a good time was had by all.

(The Courier    8.11.99)

(The Villager    8.18.99)

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at
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